- North America,
- Riviera Maya
Tulum is the most amazing destination for a laid-back, down-low beach vacation. Prices are very reasonable and the typical traveler is down to earth and relaxed.
See + Do
Mayan Ruins in the Riviera Maya, Mexico
For early Mayans who guided their ships through this coast's treacherous offshore reefs, the city of Tulum was a lighthouse: Firelight shining through window slits in the temples guided their way home. Today, the ruined city—the only settlement that the Maya ever built overlooking the sea—is still a must-see. As well as El Castillo, a tall ruined temple, Tulum has several small structures spread about a walled compound on cliffs above the water. Arrive early (it opens at 7 am) to beat the crowds, then climb down the hillside just south of El Castillo to the small beach with crystal-clear water. (There are no bathrooms, showers, or changing rooms here—so wear your suit and carry at least a liter of water.)
Cobá, about 30 miles northwest of Tulum, is surrounded by dense, often sweltering jungle—but its structures are much larger and many are beautifully preserved. You can climb Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatán region; its peak gives views over the treetops. You can also walk, bike, or hire a triciclo peddled by a modern-day descendent of the Maya to explore the paths that wind through the jungle and in between the site's ruined temples. You'll hear wild parrots swoop and squawk, and if you're lucky, you might even spot spider monkeys.
See + Do
Diving and Snorkeling in the Riviera Maya, Mexico
Coral reefs protect the Riviera Maya's beaches from storm surges and are littered with shipwrecks dating back to the 18th century. Nonprofit organizations have been attempting to preserve these reefs and secure government protection for them (for more information, visit the Centro Ecológico Akumal ). Diving and snorkeling are best around Akumal, where Ramon Bravo (the Jacques Cousteau of Mexico) established the headquarters for undersea explorations. The Akumal Dive Center offers dives to the reefs and advanced cave-diving classes along with the standard resort and open-water classes (52-984-875-9025). If Monet had been able to scuba dive, he probably would have loved to paint the Gorgonian Gardens at Tankah, a small settlement a few miles north of Tulum. The artist's watery touch would have perfectly portrayed the array of soft purple sea fans, alabaster brain corals, yellow pillar corals that look like giant hands, and the millions of neon-colored fish swimming above white sand. You can snorkel from shore and see it all, or dive with the aptly named Lucky Fish Dive Center (located at the Tankah Inn; 52-984-129-6774). The reefs offshore from Puerto Morelos, a town about 11 miles south of the Cancún airport, are also popular with divers for their vast schools of tropical fish.
See + Do
Beaches in the Riviera Maya, Mexico
Hotels and theme parks now claim many of the Riviera Maya's finest beaches, but there are still a few spots where sandy roads lead to crystal-clear caletas (coves), and where the fish outnumber humans. Yalkú, just north of the town of Akumal, has a barefoot beach restaurant, a gorgeous cove where snorkelers swim among darting angelfish, and a small nearby campground. There's also a small hotel and RV campground along the half-moon cove at Paamul; walk a few yards down the beach for blissful privacy (Carretera 307, Km 85; 52-984-875-1051; www.paamulcabanas.com). In Playa del Carmen, hip beach clubs where DJs spin beach and Latin house music for sun-worshippers are clustered along the sand north of town. Mamita's started the trend and is still going strong (Calle 28 Norte; 52-984-803-2867).
Tulum has the best beaches of all just south of the Mayan ruins. Spread your towel near Mezzanine and watch the kiteboarders sail above the afternoon waves, or slip into calm coves beside Zamas (location of ¡Que Fresco! restaurant) and the Ana y José hotel. Sea turtles nest in summer and fall in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, where they're safely protected from bright lights and human hordes.
Tel: 52 984 804 1452
Tulum meets Ibiza at Mezzanine, a too-cool restaurant/bar/hotel overlooking white sand and azure sea. DJs spin lounge music while bikini-clad escapists sip mango smoothies under soaring kitelike awnings. The chef's spicy beef salad with mint is a treat on a hot afternoon after a leisurely dip in the sea, while the more substantial shrimp pad thai and green curry go well with martinis during Friday night lounge parties. (The bar's signature cocktail is the "Mezzquito," made with Absolut Citron, Thai basil, Cointreau, lime juice, and raw sugar.) Local devotees drive from as far as Mérida to take part in the scene, and sometimes crash in one of the four hotel suites before sunrise.
¡Que Fresco!, Mexico
Tel: 52 984 877 8523
Worship the sunset with a frosty margarita while nibbling on feather-light chips with lime-infused salsa. Segue to shrimp rubbed with achiote (a pungent yucatecan red spice similar to a curry) and flash grilled over a wood fire. Better yet, start the day with homemade yogurt over papaya and pineapple, and return for as many meals as possible. Renowned for its toes-in-the-sand simplicity, this deceptively rustic restaurant at the Zamas Hotel in Tulum serves some of the finest inexpensive meals in the Riviera Maya. Wood tables and chairs painted bright blue, orange and yellow balance on uneven floors indoors and sink into the sand beneath a grass awning beside the sea. A revolving display of handcrafted jewelry and textiles amuses diners awaiting a seat (pre-wedding parties and other large groups are commonplace at dinner). Check into an oceanfront hut for a few days, and you can work your way through the extensive menu from wood-fired pizzas to fish tacos, veggie-packed salads to grilled lobster.
Open daily 7:30 am to 10 pm.
Maya Tulum, Mexico
Tel: 888 515 4580
Yoga bunnies, look no farther: This place inspires near-cultish devotion among its fans, and word of it has spread through the yoga community like wildfire (after all, how many Hatha, Jivamukti, and Bikram devotees can you put under a palapa before they talk?). Accommodation is in little individual huts, very basic, but bathroomed; the best ones are on the beach. It's all exquisitely laid-back, with one apparent drawback: The food is only so-so in the huge wooden dining hall where meals are "celebrated," and it feels like a members-only club. But then you take a class or two (not included), and—bam—you're hooked, too.
Tel: 877 528 3490 (toll-free), Tel: 52 984 873 4835
The entrance to this peaceful hideaway lies on a jungle path off an unmarked sandy road. It's hardly the place you'd expect to find a striking white Italian-style villa. But the Duchess of Ferrari had the home built in the early '90s to entertain world-weary friends, and it's since been transformed into a 29-room high-end hotel. Set on 50 acres of wild land and a broad white-sand beach, white-on-white rooms are split between sea-view suites in the original buildings and newer private cottages facing tropical gardens. Amenities include flat-screen TVs, elaborate sound systems, and electronically controlled shades, making a high-tech contrast with the artful arrangements of driftwood and primitive carved bowls. The best villa rooms are on the second floor and have large balconies overlooking the pool and sea. Families will prefer the multibedroom cottages, which have private pools. Guatemalan chef Bernardo Garcia focuses on local ingredients and indigenous cooking methods. The Aroma Spa also takes cues from local culture, using precious stones, heated rocks, seaweed, and cacao to help melt away stress and balance energy flow.
Ana y José Charming Hotel & Spa, Mexico
Tel: 52 998 887 5470
Once Tulum's most beloved basic barefoot escape, this complex has slowly but surely grown into a full-scale resort with a freshwater pool surrounded by beach beds and the full-service Om Spa with a temazcal. The 22 suites and a two-story villa have plush white platform beds, sofas scattered with colorful cushions, conch shells covering the showerheads, and—most importantly—an upgrade to 24/7 air-conditioning (not a given in this part of Mexico). The humble hotel Ana and José Soto constructed more than two decades ago even has a soaring wooden entryway, which appeared in 2011, and construction is ongoing. Still, thanks to the family's continued involvement and the loyalty of longtime clients, guests feel as though they've discovered the "real" Tulum as they wander into the palapa restaurant and wiggle their toes in the sand.—Updated by Maribeth Mellin